NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
The New England Patriots’ offseason roster delves eight deep at the running back position. But even after Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, fullback James Develin and first-year player Jonas Gray, viable competition remains.
It comes in the form of rookies Stephen Houston, James White and Roy Finch.
Only one of whom was selected in May’s draft, yet each of whom carries the serviceability to warrant a 53-man roster selection.
The reality, though, is that not all of whom will. There are only 11 offensive players on the field at a time, and there’s only one football to go around. And given the sheer volume of candidates in New England’s wide-open rushing committee, taking part in both will be a tall order this summer.
Each will have to carve a role.
Based on the ways in which the trio was utilized in college, however, doing so won’t be far outside the realm of possibility.
The 6’0”, 230-pound Houston showcased the ability to convert one-cut speed into power at Indiana. The 5’10”, 195-pound White flexed the vision and balance to make opponents miss in close quarters at Wisconsin. And the 5’6”, 167-pound Finch flashed moments of innovation and explosion in open space at Oklahoma.
It remains to be seen how those traits will adapt in Foxborough. But between them, there’s balance. There’s some earth, wind and fire.
The Earth of Stephen Houston
Houston may not have the road-grading prowess of Brandon Jacobs or the deceptive finesse of LeGarrette Blount, but he possesses the size and burst to hit rush lanes hard.
And after redshirting at Independence Community College in 2009 and crossing the 1,000-yard mark there in 2010, he transitioned that momentum to the FBS level at Indiana.
Houston accounted for 2,304 career rushing yards for the Hoosiers, but he also showed reliable hands out of the backfield and 658 career receiving yards were the byproduct. Over three years and 18 starts, he tallied 29 total touchdowns – sixth-most in Indiana history. Although after his final college campaign closed, the 22-year-old went undrafted and signed with New England as a priority free agent.
While the odds are stacked against Houston, he stands in as the largest halfback on the roster. Adding onto that, he’s assumed stylistic responsibilities similar to Blount, Ridley and Bolden in the past. Those capabilities could make him far from a redundancy for a team like the Patriots.
Yet regardless of how he’s tasked, making the most of mass will be key for Houston; he tends to run high through the exchange and doesn’t consistently drive his legs through contact. But if he is able to make his cut and go, it can take a lot to bring him down.
Due to Houston’s get-up speed and strong build, he can be just as impactful outside the tackles as he is inside the trenches. And due to his experience as a receiving option, defenses have to be multidimensional when facing him.
The Wind of James White
White started just 12 games at halfback over his four seasons at Wisconsin. But by playing in 52 games and also starting two in the slot, he proved that getting the nod isn’t the end-all, be-all towards getting into the record books. He proved that undersized backs with average breakaway speed can be just as dynamic with the ball in their hands. He proved that vision, balance and short-area quickness can divide defenses in ways that track speed and brute power cannot.
White worked in tandem with current Denver Bronco Montee Ball and soon-to-be senior Melvin Gordon. He returned kicks, handled blitz pickup, snared passes out of the backfield, cut upfield after handoffs, and took snaps from the Wildcat. In doing so, the versatile 22-year-old finished his Badgers career with 4,685 yards from scrimmage and 48 total touchdowns. He finished fourth in Wisconsin history with 4,015 rushing yards, third with 45 rushing touchdowns, and ninth all-time in Big Ten in total scores. Along the way, White also finished with a career 6.24 yards per carry – a Wisconsin record.
In turn, the back who played most of his career under the 200-pound threshold landed in New England as a fourth-round draft choice. When you watch White play, it isn’t hard to understand why. It doesn’t take long to notice his lower of gravity. And his pad level keeps his powerful legs churning through piles, while his flexibility allows him to turn the corner off the tackle and into the second level.
He sees the gaps and is decisive in attacking them, but it would remiss to overlook his prowess in making opponents miss as he stays on his feet to shake and spin out of tackles.
Adding onto his ability to shed defensive fronts is his ability to withstand collisions. As he stated during his visit to Gillette Stadium on May 20, “ball security is job security.” It’s a concept he has put to use. White garnered 756 career touches during his days at Wisconsin, and just two of which resulted in fumbles.
White’s skill set is a well-rounded one. Because of that, it’s plausible to think he could be more than a third-down contributor at the next level. He may not ever be a feature back or a short-yardage type for the Patriots, but he has shown he can get on the field in a multitude of facets. He may not be Vereen, but there’s reason to believe he’ll harness a purpose in year one.
The Fire of Roy Finch
Finch was one of the first names linked to New England when undrafted free agency embarked on May 10. And soon after the news circulated, so did the intrigue. The diminutive but dangerous Finch played in 47 games over his Oklahoma career, starting 10. Glimpses of his play drew semblance to a Jeff Demps highlight reel, whereas glimpses of his production drew semblance to a declining stock market.
Finch dashed onto the scene in 2010, earning 85 carries for 398 yards and two touchdowns to go with 10 catches for 49 yards and one kick return for 18 yards. Then in 2011, he racked up 111 carries for 605 yards and three touchdowns, tacking on 34 catches for 296 yards and 11 returns for 203 yards.
A drop-off followed. Finch saw his number called for just seven rushing attempts, two receptions and 12 kick returns as a junior in 2012. And as a senior in 2013, he saw 59 attempts, 12 receptions and 19 kick returns. His final two years at Oklahoma failed to follow the trajectory of his first two. His role as a returner expanded, and a 100-yard touchdown was the consequence. But his career rushing average of 5.4 yards and receiving average of 7.6 yards remained underutilized.
There were instances where his lack of playing time netted honest explanations from the coaching staff, alluding to effort in practice. There were instances where it was his lack of success in pass protection kept him off the field in third-down situations he often thrived in.
But there were also instances where Finch’s sprint-stop ability and sudden change of direction made him one of the most exciting players in the country. There was instances where his stability and explosiveness shot him out of the tunnels he had disappeared into. And there were instances where perhaps even Finch didn’t know where he was heading, but his athleticism and creativity got him there.
The 22-year-old Finch will never be an every-down player in the NFL. But he doesn’t have to be a bell-cow back to be effective. He is a spark plug who can provide a change of pace on passing downs, and he is a returner who moves with more fluidity than his 4.5 40-yard dash and 7.07 three-cone times suggest. He is a home-run hitter, even if his sample size to show it has been limited.
Balancing All Three
Drafted or undrafted, Houston, White and Finch will find themselves at the same starting point once the install, the practices, and the preseason games blend together.
All three rookies have a chance to showcase during organized team activities and training camp, as all three bring a different element to the table. But for them, as well as head coach Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and running backs coach Ivan Fears, it will be about finding a way for each one to translate.